It’s no secret Apple is making a play for the education market. The iPad maker recently unveiled their new iBooks 2 app for the iPad, which sets Apple’s sights squarely on eTextbooks, and Apple is promising an unparalleled learning experience complete with interactive animations, photos, videos, and more. Few can argue that ushering in a new era that eliminates the crippling cost (not to mention the burdensome weight) of traditional textbooks is a good thing, but not everyone is of the opinion that Apple is going about it the right way. And we’re not just talking about hardcore papyrus devotees, either.
iBooks 2 has Apple partnering up with some of the heavy hitters in the publishing world (McGraw-Hill, Pearson, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) to make iBooks textbooks available to students at no more than $14.99 each, and in some cases much cheaper. At the present time, however, iBooks 2 is focused on the K-12 crowd, although Apple has eyes on college arena, where others have staked a claim with apps and services. To date, iBooks textbooks are only readable on Apple devices. And given Apple’s history of closed systems, it will probably remain that way.
Apple’s move should not come as a surprise, least of all to those in the business of educating students, who have been benefiting from Apple’s contributions to education for years. iTunes U, a free app that’s been available for quite some time, enables teachers to remotely distribute podcasted lecture videos, class coursework, class notes, quizzes, and syllabi to their students. With to the initial deployment of iTunes U – as well as recent improvements to extend it to K-12 that were released synchronously with iBooks 2 – Apple has positioned itself as a major player in the higher education field.
All considerations aside about the financial burden that public schools would face if they were forced to buy hundreds of iPads at a time to facilitate K-12 classroom learning, the idea seems perfectly ripe for the university environment. Especially considering the astonishingly low ceiling prices of $14.99 that would likely appeal to legions of college students eager to shave thousands off their education expenses. But in light of recent public conversations that call into question the shortening lifespan of successive iPad generations, some in the eTextbook industry are wondering if taking a proprietary approach to the publication of educational material isn’t just a plain old bad idea.
“Proprietary not the right way”
According to Dan Rosensweig, CEO of the online college textbook rental company Chegg, “Proprietary is not the right way to go in education. It may be the right way in other industries, but why would we want to lock our students to only one device when it may not be the cheapest on the market, or the device that the student currently owns?”
Apple’s iBooks 2 announcement came one day after Chegg’s own announcement that it would be adding an eTextbook reader to its already considerable repertoire of student services, which includes low cost textbook rentals and also offers the social elements of online Q&A and homework help in a browser based environment. But contrary to what some might automatically assume, Apple’s foray into the eTextbook market doesn’t have Rosensweig worried. If anything, he views it as an opportunity to shed light on Chegg’s strengths by emphasizing what Apple and iBooks textbooks can’t offer: a multi-platform experience.
“When Apple gets into a market,” Rosensweig says, “that market gets a lot of visibility and we’re grateful for that. However, in this particular case we think they’re off the mark. If you’re forced to buy an Apple device rather than use the one you have, how is that good for students? It’s a very expensive proposition to lock in on one piece of hardware that ultimately has to be replaced every couple of years. We should be able to build things for students to use on devices they have, or whatever devices they want and can afford.”
Chegg strikes a sharp contrast to Apple’s proprietary approach by offering eTextbooks that are device agnostic. Their growing library of college textbooks reside in the cloud and can be accessed from virtually any device with internet connectivity – and yes, that includes iPads. Chegg’s eTextbook reader utilizes HTML5, which means that it can be used anywhere, on any device, and the content will render native.
The Case for the iPad
Apple enthusiasts see the iBooks 2 development as a positive step forward in engaging the interest of students and transforming the learning experience into one that’s much more interactive. Already, there have been a number of private universities that have launched pilot programs to test the iPad’s effectiveness as a learning tool for the classroom. Abilene Christian University revealed that students who used their iPads to take notes scored 25 percent higher on tests than those who took notes via the tried and true traditional method of putting pen to paper.
At Ohio’s Oberlin College, which concluded an Apple iPad pilot project in December of 2011, feedback from educators about the usability of iPads in the college classroom was mixed. While speaking to the Chronicle of Higher Education, Forrest H. Rose, an instructional technologist at Oberlin, claimed, “There have been mixed reactions and there has been some pushback.” Some Oberlin instructors involved in the iPad pilot project reported that improperly operating apps and operating system bugs caused them to revert to the stone-aged technology of handing out Xeroxed copies in class, while others reported that the mobility of the iPad both in and out of the classroom led to increased social interaction between students who would otherwise find a laptop an encumbrance to both.
Still, at the center of this discussion is the very real question about whether or not it’s an economic feasibility for universities to supply their entire student population with iPads, or whether students themselves will be able to afford them if iBooks textbooks ever become a part of the standard curriculum. Education consultant Ben Johnson writing in Edutopia claimed, “Certainly iPads are cheaper than computers, desktop or laptop, and they are more mobile.”
Ultimately, when it comes down to the issue of cold hard cash, which will be a necessity if a student is required to purchase an iPad to gain access to required reading, Apple’s latest venture may prove to be an uphill struggle.
“Locking somebody into a specific piece of hardware is a very risky proposition,” Rosensweig says. Pointing out that Apple’s free iBooks Author tool may draw the attention of content creators eager to get their textbooks into the public eye, he adds, “If you use Apple’s creation tools, you can only distribute the eTextbook on the Apple platform. The question is: why? If you’re a content creator, don’t you want to make your stuff available to everybody, on every platform?”